In the presence of Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh, *
stir up your strength and come to help us.
Restore us, O God of hosts; *
show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved. (Isaiah 64:1-3)
On Friday, 12 Christians entered the Hart Senate Building in Washington DC. Armed with clergy stoles, symbolizing their faith, and their Bibles, they called on the Senators gathering to vote on a $1.5 trillion tax bill to change their minds and hearts and vote against a bill that would give massive financial benefits to large corporations and the wealthiest in our county while putting in jeopardy the economic hope for the middle and lower income classes, including our children.
The clergy and lay people gathered, prayed, and read from the more than 2000 verses in the Bible where we are charged as followers of Jesus to care for the poor and the vulnerable among us. When the protestors did not leave the building after being ordered to do so, they were arrested and removed. Later that evening, the Senate voted to approve this sweeping tax bill that will not only give more money to the people at the very top of the economic throne (Pyramid) but will create a projected deficit of $1.5 trillion. Senators and President Trump are already talking about how they will reduce this deficit with cuts in programs for the poorest of our citizens including health care, nutrition, and education.
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence–
as when fire kindles brushwood
and the fire causes water to boil–
to make your name known to your adversaries,
so that the nations might tremble at your presence!
The readings we hear this morning on the First Sunday in Advent speak to a deep pain that the Israelites and the first century readers of Mark’s Gospel have experienced. Following the Babylonian conquest of the kingdom of Judah, many Jews were forced to leave their homeland and enter exile in Babylon. When King Cyrus of Persia captured the Babylonian nation around 538 BCE, he set free the Israelites. This passage from Isaiah is set in a time of Israel’s history that reflects the struggles of the earliest people who return to Jerusalem following their exile in Babylon. They returned home with eager hearts longing for the land and the memories of their glorious Jerusalem. They imagined that in coming home to Jerusalem they would be restored to their former glory. But what they found was a crumbled and dysfunctional kingdom. Threats, divisions, land battles, and power struggles erupted between and among the returnees, those who had remained in the land, and those who had settled there from other places after Jerusalem was conquered. Problems multiplied rather than disappeared; ugliness and evil continued to exist. It is into this dismal situation that the writer of Isaiah speaks.
Isaiah 64 is a powerful lament. A lament is a prayer that cries out to God from the midst of desperate grief, pain, or any circumstance that seems as if the ground is shaking. Laments name the trauma, protest against the pain, and appeal for intercession. The Book of Lamentations and many Psalms pray to God in the midst of pain, trusting that God cares and can be trusted. Lamentations speak the truth of despair, calling out our many failings, and pleading for things to be set right. The lament in Isaiah speaks to a longing for God to act decisively in history that nations might tremble at God’s presence. The writer remembers God’s awesome deeds, but now cries out in the midst of sin and transgression. The hoped-for joy has departed. Jerusalem is ruins and rubble. The temple has not been restored to its former glory and the anticipated restoration of the throne of David has become an idea of derision.
The reading from Mark that begins Advent comes in the 13th chapter, in the middle of the Gospel just before Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion. But the hearers of this Gospel lived in the midst of another time of great devastation. The Gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke were written in the context of the destruction of the Temple by the Roman troops of Titus in 70 CE Mark’s world was shattered and shaken to its core. The Roman armies destroyed the Jewish rebellion and smashed the temple, desecrating a place that was nothing less than the sacred heart of the world for the Jewish people. To hear deeply the message of Mark’s Gospel is to listen from a position of desolation, chaos, and bewilderment. To really hear what Mark is saying, we must enter the shadows, those places where all hope seems lost. The apocalyptic language that falls strangely on our 21st century ears, must be understood as “crisis literature.”—words that speak directly to the catastrophe of the Temple’s destruction in the latter part of the 1st century CE.
As we enter into this season of Advent, we too feel the pull of lament on our souls. We yearn for the words of Isaiah to come to pass: The spirit of God is upon me, because God has anointed me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners. The prophet’s words call for compassion to deepen. To develop kinship with those who hunger and thirst. To stand alongside young people, brought here as infants and young children, who face being sent away to a country they have never known. To call out for Haitian families who fled the devastating earthquake in 2010 and now face a heartless deportation back to a country that cannot receive them. To support victims of natural disasters who are chastised rather than helped. To offer peace when daily anger and fear fan violent acts against people of different races, cultures, and religion. To pray and act when the most vulnerable among us are stripped of protection. And to call out our leaders, who in the richest nation ever on earth, congratulate themselves for decreasing support for food, health care, and education.
As we enter the season of Advent, we confess the shadows of despair, violence, suffering, and hate, while we actively look for Jesus in our midst, lighting candles of hope, peace, joy, and love. To lament is not just to vent our frustration, but it is a profound statement of a faith in God from the midst of the pain of human hopelessness. The significance is that we recognize our need and look to God, trusting that God cares and that God will respond.
Before we can be saved, Isaiah calls us to lament. To recognize the devastation that is around us. To see that our situation is dire. To call out to God to hear us, to see us, to come to us. To acknowledge that while the light has indeed come into the world, we as God’s people have not opened our hearts and minds to it and so there is still so much work to be done. And yet we are not left without hope. The writer of Isaiah calls to God to look upon God’s people and remember the covenant. God’s covenant loyalty is always greater than our disloyalty. As a potter shapes clay, so God will shape all of us to look like the community of God who reflects God’s character to the world.
Mark’s Gospel offers a message of hope proclaimed in the midst of catastrophe. Even in the shadows, Mark proclaims the good news, the hope that rings out when all hope seems to be lost. Mark’s revealing, which is what apocalypse means, is that God is always in the midst of us.
During Advent, the cry of Isaiah and the urgency of Mark, should be our cry: God come and shape us, shape our community. Like Jerusalem, our world is a mess. Things are not as they should be. We are too far from each other. Our actions too often lead to suffering rather than joy.
We look to God to lead us in the way of hope and compassion. We long for the one who makes mountains quake, who comes with power and great glory and enters the world as a helpless infant in a barn at the edge of town—that this God will come and form us as witnesses and bearers of good news for all people.
The people gathered at the Hart Senate Building failed to convince enough Senators to change or defeat the $1.5 trillion tax bill. So the work continues.
As we enter into Advent, we watch for God “who breaks open the heavens and comes down,” not stopping halfway. God in Christ comes all the way to meet us in our brokenness and in our longing. This is God who not only carries the power of the heavens; this is God who works for those who wait, who work for justice, and for those who remember God’s awesome deeds we did not expect. Advent calls us to cry out to the faithful one. “Restore us, O God of hosts; *show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.”